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Senate Passes GOP Tax Overhaul, House to Revote Today; Was Amtrak Engineer Distracted Before Train Derailed?; Don Trump Jr. Floats New Conspiracy Theory about Russia Investigation. Aired 6- 6:30a ET

Aired December 20, 2017 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[05:59:32] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Wednesday, December 20, 6 a.m. here in New York. Chris is off. Bill Weir joins me. Great to have you here on this very busy day.

BILL WEIR, CNN ANCHOR: Busy day. Good to be with you, my friend.

CAMEROTA: Great to have you. OK, so a landmark overhaul of the nation's tax code now just hours away from reaching the president's desk. The Senate passing the GOP bill overnight. The last undeclared Republican, Jeff Flake, voting "yes." The House expected to follow suit in a revote, approving this bill that polls show is deeply unpopular with the American people.

President Trump already spiking the football, praising what he calls the biggest tax cut in history. He plans to hold a news conference at the White House this afternoon.

WEIR: And with all eyes on the tax bill, a looming government shutdown is flying under the radar somewhat. Unless a spending bill is passed before midnight Friday, funds for federal agencies run dry. Several Senate sources are telling CNN a short-term stopgap measure may be their best hope.

And Donald Trump Jr., trying to discredit the Russia investigation into his father's administration, tells a group of young conservative activists that the probe surrounding dad's campaign is being fueled by government higher-ups, conspiring to block his political agenda.

Lots going on, and CNN has it all covered, of course. Joe Johns live at the White House to start us off -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Bill. The White House is pushing toward a media event here later today to celebrate passage of the tax bill. The White House, early reaction to congressional movement was to start recounting the other things the administration sees as successes during the first year of President Trump.

However, make no mistake: this is the first major legislative victory during the Trump administration, coming just 11 days from the end of the year.



JOHNS (voice-over): Senate Republicans celebrating after passing the first overhaul of the U.S. tax code in 30 years along strict party lines.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: The Democrats have said that the American people will remember this night. I hope they do.

SEN. MIKE ENZI (R), WYOMING: This country will be moving forward again.

JOHNS: The early morning vote, which was interrupted by protesters...




JOHNS: ... coming amid fierce objections from Democrats who attacked the $1.5 trillion bill for disproportionately helping corporations and wealthy Americans. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer chastising Republicans for talking in the chamber during his closing argument.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Can we have order, Mr. President?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Senate will be in order.

SCHUMER: This is serious stuff. We believe you're messing up America. You can pay attention for a couple of minutes.

JOHNS: Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown prompting a rebuke about decorum from an aide to Majority Leader McConnell following this moment during the Senate debate.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO: This tax cut raises -- it causes a huge deficit to give money to the wealthiest people in the country, creates a huge hole in the budget. And who's going to fill the hole in the budget? Not the -- not the lobbyist walking in and out of Senator McConnell's office 100 feet down the hall.

JOHNS: CNN polling shows the bill is unpopular with the majority of Americans, but Republicans remain convinced that once the legislation is enacted, public perception will improve.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: If we can't sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work.

JOHNS: Earlier in the day, the House also passed the tax bill with every Democrat and 12 Republicans voting "no." RYAN: The conference report is adopted without objection. The motion

to reconsider is laid upon the table.

JOHNS: But after the vote, the Senate parliamentarian found three small provisions that violated budget rules, meaning the House will have to revote on the bill later today.

SEN. BRIAN SCHATZ (D), HAWAII: To me it's emblematic of what happens when you take major legislation, conceive of it in the dark and rush it through.

JOHNS: After likely passing again in the House, the it will be sent to the desk of President Trump. He congratulated Republicans in both chambers after their votes. Due to changes in the estate taxes and the alternative minimum tax, the president is likely to benefit greatly from this bill, despite insisting otherwise.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing. Believe me. Believe me. This is not good for me.

JOHNS: Press secretary Sarah Sanders repeating Tuesday before conceding Mr. Trump could benefit.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: In some ways, particularly on the personal side, the president will likely take a big hit. But on the business side, he could benefit.


JOHNS: There is one more issue for the Congress to deal with before they leave town for the Christmas holiday. That would be a spending bill to avoid a partial government shutdown. Several sources tell CNN the only scenario at this stage is yet another continuing resolution, short-term of course, to keep the government up and running.

Bill and Alisyn, back to you.

CAMEROTA: OK, Joe. Thank you very much for all that reporting.

Let's bring in our CNN political analysts to talk about it. We have John Avlon and Alex Burns.

OK. So let's tell our viewers what made the final cut. I mean, what's actually in this thing. So let's start by telling you what's in it for individuals. OK? Let's take you through it.

So it lowers most individual rates. It nearly doubles the standard deduction. If you take that deduction, it eliminates the personal exemptions. You don't have to itemize. It caps state and local tax deductions at a rate that is, quite frankly, lower.

[06:05:05] JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Ten grand, yes.

CAMEROTA: Right, ten grand. And so for people in California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, that doesn't fly with them. It eliminates the health insurance mandate for businesses. Let's go

through that. It slashes the corporate tax rate. That's the cherry on top here that everybody has been, you know, ballyhooing.

AVLON: Down to 21?

CAMEROTA: Right. Yes.

AVLON: From 35.

CAMEROTA: From 35. It lowers the tax burden on pass-through businesses. This will come up, because that is how President Trump and people like Jared Kushner, who have these pass-through real estate businesses, can become enriched. It changes how U.S. multinational corporations are taxed.

OK, John, where are we and what do you see in the final product?

AVLON: Well, look, I mean, this is Republicans. They've gotten the win they desperately wanted and needed. President Trump does, as well. The bill is less bad than some of the original provisions. But it is fundamentally a corporate tax cut, under the belief that that will have a broad stimulative effect and finally raise wages on Main Street, which had been lacking.

The problem is, there's no guarantee it will do that. The problem is that it will balloon the deficit. The problem is that it's been sold as a middle-class tax cut primarily and tax simplification, and it really isn't either of those things. Those are significant problems. It could increase income inequality. It could also bring in a broad new era of corporate profit that trickles down to Main Street America. Let's hope that's the case.

WEIR: That would be proving trickle-down economics, John.

But what's interesting, Alex, as you talked about, is the individual tax cuts, which people will see in the near term. A few hundred bucks, most of the people who will see that. It expires in eight years. The corporate tax cuts are forever. A cynic would say some of the folks on Capitol Hill were looking at their career longevity and doing the math on whether they would pay the price of this.

But what's really interesting is the behind-the-scenes machinations from Republicans. When repealing Obamacare blew up in their faces, a lot of people thought this would be a Christmas miracle. So talk us through what happened to get to this point.

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, behind the scenes on the Hill, this has been just an absolute must-pass piece of legislation. Really all year, but especially since the failure of Obamacare. The sense among congressional leaders that failure was not an option, that they had to negotiate their way to 51 votes in the Senate, to 218 in the House. I guess a little less than 218 now, since so many people have resigned.

But you have had -- you did have a number of, you know, off-site negotiations of a kind that you don't typically have in the middle of a major legislation.

WEIR: That was to keep -- that was to keep people from going rogue and killing the bill in the cradle, right, to the press.

BURNS: Right. Right. And that, frankly, for this Republican conference especially in the House, is an enormous accomplishment, that we have not seen this majority pass anything of scale that had a chance of actually becoming law ever, right? Every major piece of legislation they have passed over the past -- you know, since taking power in 2011.

They have known either that President Obama would veto it or that it would not clear the Republican Senate. So that has given folks in the Freedom Caucus and on the more moderate side of the House a lot of leeway to kind of freelance, or vote for things that they wouldn't actually have to answer for in front of voters.

This one was different. And they mattered (ph) the process. We heard Brian Schatz, the senator from Hawaii, talking about a bill conceived in the dark, negotiated in private. You take away those sort of procedural choices that Republicans made, and I don't know that this thing ever gets this far.

CAMEROTA: One of the lawmakers said not everything you hear in the dark is Santa Claus.

AVLON: What is that?

CAMEROTA: It means that it is not always good, at least the Democrats say that. But I think that the behind the scenes machinations are really interesting, because it worked. This was a Christmas miracle, the idea that they could do this in three months, something that they couldn't do in three decades, shows that this is a blueprint for how to do it. Get everybody off campus. Keep them away from the press. Talk it through amongst yourselves until you understand how you're going to sell it, which is what they did. When they emerged from Fort McNair they got it done.

AVLON: Look, credit for simply the legislative lift it took to get it passed by Christmas. But I think it's a mistake to assume this is a blueprint they can replicate. Here's why.

First of all, President Trump very conversant about taxes, at least compared to health care.

WEIR: Right.

AVLON: Second of all, tax cuts are catechism to conservatives. You don't vote against tax cuts if you want to have an "R" after your name in Congress. And they got the Freedom Caucus, the normally disparate folks, on board early. That was partly tactical. Certainly, it helped get the bill passed.

But I think this was something unique. They needed the win. They had the deadline. And you don't vote against tax cuts. We'll see what the impact is, but I'm not sure this is transferrable to, say, entitlement reform.

BURNS: I would say, I do think they pay a price for the privacy of the process. This is something that we saw the Republicans use to great effect against Democrats in Obamacare. Right? This was passed in private; this was negotiated away from the American people, which wasn't entirely true that year, right?

But when you see the opinion polling on this bill, people don't believe they will get a tax cut, even though in many cases they will. The basic sales job that you would expect there to be around a major piece of legislation simply hasn't happened yet. So that all needs to happen now. And Republicans are playing catchup in a way that they might not be if there had been a more public process.

WEIR: Let's talk about a potential government shutdown. This could then undo everything we've all...

CAMEROTA: I'm not falling for it. This is what they do -- I'm not falling for it. They do this at the 11th hour. Invariably at 11:59 p.m., they pass some sort of stopgap measure. They kick the can down the road for weeks or months. That's what always happens. Is this different this time? Should I see it differently?

AVLON: I just -- look, Mitch McConnell ensured everybody no shutdown. "I guarantee no shutdown." That's exactly what he said before the last shutdown. Boehner was saying the same thing.

Now, the difference is President Obama is not in the White House. The incentive for Republicans, with unified control of Washington, to actually shut the government down is pretty minimal. But this is probably about sort of playing chicken tricycling towards a cliff. Sometimes you can slip over unintentionally.

BURNS: And on the Democratic side, too, you have seen the Democrats back away from their red line, which is that there had to be a DACA fix by the end of the year or you wouldn't get Democratic votes on spending legislation. They're no longer saying that. That's a very significant cave. And it means, you know, I think they are looking at this game of chicken and saying, "You know, we don't really want to be holding the bag for a shutdown, even if it is on a matter of principle."

WEIR: You know the people who care the most about this? They live in the Florida Keys, the Texas coast, and in Puerto Rico, because there's an $80 billion aid package in there, and that is part of a slow-motion disaster mitigation plan that is absolutely needed.

AVLON: And you've done phenomenal reporting out of there and repeated. But that is important. That is a key provision. Why would you hold that up? Forget that it's on the eve of Christmas just on principle.

I mean, there are other outstanding items, too. Children's Health Insurance is set to expire. Congress has kicked the can. So there are things they need to do to step up and just do their basic job that transcends politics. CAMEROTA: John Avlon, and Alex Burns, thank you.

WEIR: Stick around. We have much more to talk about with you both. But now, let's shift to the investigation into that deadly Amtrak derailment, now focusing on driver distraction and lack of experience.

The National Transportation Safety Board reveals that two people, the engineer and conductor, unfamiliar with the territory, were in the cab when that disaster happened.

CNN's Stephanie Elam live in Dupont, Washington, with the very latest. Stephanie, good morning.


Just a little bit more about those two people inside of the cab at the time of this derailment. We know one was the engineer. And the other was a conductor who was getting more familiar with this terrain, which the NTSB says is part of the duties of a conductor.

The other conductor, who was really working this train, and there's always one on each train, was in the section with the passengers at the time.

We also learned that all the crew members who are on this train have been hospitalized. And so the NTSB is hoping to interview those crew members within the next couple of days or so. The say they're trying to respect their injuries but also make sure that they get their information.

The other thing we learned: the emergency brake was not activated by the engineer. It was activated automatically on the train.

And because this was the maiden voyage of this new route, they also made it clear that for two weeks they've been running nonrevenue trains on this line. So while this was the first run with passengers on it, it was not the first run ever that they had done with this train.

Of course, though, with two people being in the cab, they are looking at distraction as one of the issues that could have played a part here in what happened. They said that there are two cameras, one that faces inside the train cab and one that faces out. Both of them were severely damaged. And they're sending them back to their labs, the NTSB is, sending them back to their labs in D.C. so they can see if they can extricate any of that video that might help give them some clues as to what happened.

And also just to let you know that two of the people have been identified, Alisyn, in this train accident. James Hamre and Zach Willhoite. Both of them were train enthusiasts. Both of them, of course, excited about this new route, on that train and lost their lives.

CAMEROTA: That's terrible, Stephanie. What a tragedy. All right. Thank you very much for the reporting from there. Now to this next accident. Mexican authorities are leading the

investigation into a deadly bus crash that killed at least 12 people on the Yucatan Peninsula. Eighteen others, including seven Americans, were injured when the bus touring Mayan sites flipped over on a narrow highway. The passengers were from two Royal Caribbean cruise ships.

WEIRD: Is Donald Trump Jr. trying to delegitimize the Russia investigation with a new conspiracy theory? The former director of the CIA calls Trump Jr.'s actions, quote, "a little scary." That's next.


[06:18:12] WEIR: Donald Trump Jr. is suggesting that there is a conspiracy underway in Washington to block his father's agenda. While speaking to a gathering of young conservative college activists, he floated this idea.


DONALD TRUMP JR., SON OF DONALD TRUMP: My father talked about a rigged system throughout the campaign. And people are, "Oh, what are we talking about?" But it is. And you're seeing it. There is, and there are people at the highest levels of government that don't want to let America be America.


WEIR: "Let America be America." Let's bring CNN's political analysts back in: John Avlon, Alex Burns. Gentlemen, we were talking about this before the show.

CAMEROTA: Because I want to know who he -- who it is.

WEIR: Who is the deep state he's talking about?

AVLON: Well, he seems to be referring to the Mueller investigation and the FBI, and elements of the Department of Justice. But again, this is just simply a gut check about what Trump family table conversation is like. This isn't an official document, but this is the president's son speaking to a young conservative group, alleging that there is a conspiracy inside the government, folks who don't want to let America be America again. Let alone hold his father accountable. That language, that frame is by any objective measure, troubling.

WEIR: Here's Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA, who took a bit of -- took an issue with these ideas. Take a listen.


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: People at the highest levels of government who don't want to let America be America. Does it sound to you like Donald Trump Jr. is pushing a conspiracy theory about America's government? MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Well, Don, I have to confess to

you when I first heard that earlier this evening, that was a little scary. I mean, that is -- that is an appeal to the heart of autocracy, and challenging the patriotism of those folks who -- who work in the United States government.


WEIR: Yes, Alex, what is American is an independent judiciary.


WEIR: And checks and balances on power. But this goes back to the campaign where the Trump machine works best if there is an "other." Right? If they can't have a Hillary Clinton or they can't have the media, which is daily, they need something.

BURNS: That's absolutely right. And if you look back at the campaign, going back to the campaign, this is also kind of the role that Don Jr. has pretty regularly played. That of the members of the Trump family, he is the one who is most out there with the sort of deep-state conspiracy theories, the media -- anti-Trump media conspiracy theories. He was the one who made those comments, you know, comparing refugees to, you know, poisoned candy. So he is the guy in the family who says this stuff. Often the stuff that his father thinks or says to other people privately but doesn't quite say out loud. And I think you do need to see this as part of that pattern or behavior.

I will say, in fairness to Don Jr., he's not wrong that there are plenty of people on the civil service side of government or on -- you know, who were appointed by President Obama in senior roles in government who absolutely didn't want his dad to succeed as president and who represented a real roadblock early in the administration. At this stage, when you are talking about things like an independent investigation, independent judiciary, it's a much more provocative thing to say.

AVLON: Yes, and look, what Michael Hayden said is striking. Right? An appeal to the heart of autocracy. This is from somebody who used to run the CIA. That's, you know, not subtle language. And it's really just -- this is about just simply what Don Jr. is saying, what he believes. What presumably the Trump family talks about is, they're counterpunching. There's a conspiracy to get him. That's the purpose that gets them up in the morning.

And these are folks who, quote, "don't want America to be America again."


AVLON: Working in the federal government, civil service, that's really troubling. And this echoes old talks, right, about you know, in the 1950s, you know, people in the State Department trying to undermine American independence, secretly siding with the Soviet.

So there are ugly overtones. And it may just be a dog whistle, but it's indicative of a mode of thinking that should be troubling.

CAMEROTA: I think that what Alex is saying is an interesting road to go down. I think that it's an interesting exercise to sometimes try to get into the mind of Don Jr. and the base and figure out what it is they're thinking. So what they're saying -- let's just play this exercise with me.

AVLON: Sure.

CAMEROTA: Is that there are people in the Department of Justice -- this is how you interpret it -- maybe the CIA, maybe the FBI, who could stop the president, who could stop the president's agenda somehow.

AVLON: I think he's saying something much more than that. I think what he's saying is that there are people who don't want America to succeed working in the federal government. Who don't want America to be America again. Whatever that means, it's some glory restoration, for whatever partisan or identity politics reason, they feel is being actively blocked.

CAMEROTA: They're working against America?


CAMEROTA: From inside?

AVLON: Yes. And I think it's not just working against a political agenda. I think he's alleging, basically, a conspiracy to stop his father.

Remember, the rigged system rift begins during the campaign. And there are elements like the rigged system redistricting, which are designed to blunt representative democracy. That's not this.

When -- when President Trump won, he is head of the federal government. So it's a neat judo move to say that the head of the federal government is being a victim of a conspiracy theory by the federal government.

WEIR: Another interesting angle on the Russia investigation came yesterday when Chris Christie gave an interesting comment. He's winding down his last days in the New York, or...


WEIR: ... the New Jersey governor mansion there. And do we have that on tape? You probably want to hear what he said.


WEIR: Yes, let's listen. Let's listen to what he said when asked about whether Jared Kushner should be a reasonable target of this investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: He deserves the scrutiny. You know why? Because he was involved in the transition and involved in meetings that call into question his role.


WEIR: Now, he did qualify it a little bit and say, if he's guilty or whatever. But this goes back. This is an intriguing family story, because he helped put Jared's dad in prison.

BURNS: He -- he was largely responsible for putting Jared's dad in jail. And then, to repay the favor, Jared was in no small part responsible for ousting Chris Christie from the transition and really taking over that process.

And look, there is a personal grudge side of this, there -- make no mistake about it. But Chris Christie, you know, he has a point. That if Jared and the Trump kids had not sort of shunted him aside and taken command of the transition themselves, I don't know that Jared would be facing the kind of legal scrutiny that he is right now. I don't know that he would have been in a position to have those meetings that we know that Special Counsel Mueller is now looking into.

WEIR: Right. Because Chris Christie thinks like a prosecutor, as opposed to a real estate scion.

AVLON: Right, and that's a big reason why typically, children and family members of presidents don't run transitions. But the intergenerational bad blood is fascinating here. And it's not just that Christie got dumped from the transition because of this. It's that, you know, he was really about to be Trump's V.P. That's what Trump had wanted. That was the bet for the early endorsement. And that was kiboshed, in no small part because of that interpersonal...

CAMEROTA: What a tangled web.

AVLON: Yes, that was fascinating.

[06:25:00] CAMEROTA: Honestly, this is, and it's just interesting. It's notable because Chris Christie is free -- I mean, Chris Christie has never been that hamstrung to say what he really feels. He, you know, sort of prides himself on being a bit of a straight talker. But now he's truly freed if he's stepping out of politics.

BURN: He's really one of the few people in the party who is both free to speak his mind and takes shots at the party and the president listens to it. You're not talking about a John Kasich, who's just sort of out there, you know, whacking the White House every day.

WEIR: And he's really grabbed the opioid epidemic as the cause of the day. It will be interesting what his second act might be.

CAMEROTA: Absolutely. All right. Stay tuned for all of that. Gentlemen, thank you very much, Alex Burns and John Avlon. Great to see you. All right. We do have some breaking news for you out of Italy. Former cardinal -- the former cardinal from Boston who was accused of protecting abusive priests has died. The stained legacy of Bernard Law and a live report for you from Rome next.


CAMEROTA: We do have some breaking news. Cardinal Bernard Law, who became a symbol of the Catholic church's sexual abuse scandal, has died. The Vatican confirming the 86-year-old's death in Rome.